'Jollywood' film school shines spotlight on Haiti

Following the lead of 'Bollywood' in India and 'Nollywood' in Nigeria, 'Jollywood' hopes to become a center for filmmaking and film education in Haiti.

Ciné Institute
Ciné Institute graduate cinematographer Marco Saint-Juste prepares to film. The institute brings filmmaking education to Haiti. It hopes to create a 'Jollywood' in which Haiti would become known for its filmmaking.

Jollywood is a merry-sounding name for the home of Haiti’s only film school: the Ciné Institute. That sense of promise will be showcased Jan. 24 in New York City during Haiti Optimiste, the school’s first ever fundraiser.

Following the lead of "Bollywood" (the center of the Indian film industry in Bombay, now called Mumbai) the school crossed the first letter of its town (Jacmel) and the center of the world film industry (Hollywood) with the hope of making "Jollywood" a name recognized around the world.

The institute has come to one of the world's media capitals, New York, to solicit funds and publicize its work. “We felt this was a cause coherent with the cultural mission we are promoting here in New York. We felt we should really support the school,” says Marie-Monique Steckel, president of French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF).

Three years after a strong earthquake devastated Haiti, the school has made great strides. But many challenges persist. The country has few local industries, scant natural resources, and much of its infrastructure remains in disrepair. Yet, through a combination of perseverance and generosity, Ciné Institute stands ready to celebrate.

The New York event, Haiti Optimiste, will feature a collection of new films from Ciné Institute’s students. Actor Ben Stiller, director Jonathan Demme, and Ciné Institute founder David Belle will participate in a panel discussion about recent films. Bravo’s Top Chef contestant chef Ron Duprat will be on hand, as well as Haitian songstress Emeline Michel and celebrity fashion photographer Marc Baptiste.

The fundraiser is as much about building awareness as it is financial support, says Mr. Belle, CEO of Artists for Peace and Justice and founder of Ciné Institute. Funds raised will be applied toward free tuition at Ciné Institute.

Haiti Optimiste represents a relatively new but dynamic partnership between FIAF and Ciné Institute, Ms. Steckel says.

Six months after the earthquake she traveled to Jacmel and met Belle.

“What touched me the most about Jacmel was that six months later it was [as if the earthquake] had happened the day before. I had the impression that aid had been suspended,” Steckel says. “The one institution making strides in rebuilding was Ciné Institute. Students were coming on foot and by bike. What really impressed me was the contrast of total destruction and the idea that this small institution was really determined to make a future.”

The visit convinced Steckel to help Belle rebuild Ciné Institute.

The two-year school introduces young people to educational and technological opportunities and, most importantly, jobs, Steckel says. Haiti has a 40.6 percent unemployment rate, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s 2013 World Fact Book. Institute programs include training in fiction, documentary making, and television advertising.

The 2010 earthquake destroyed all three of the school’s original buildings. Almost immediately the staff and students started working out of tents. By May 2010 the school had stabilized enough to begin anew.

Today Ciné Institute occupies an empty hotel situated on a 5.5-acre campus overlooking the Caribbean Sea. About 70 students attend the school.

Students hope Jollywood can become the next Nollywood, which is named for Nigeria’s film industry, the third-largest in the world, Belle says.

“The obvious perception of Haiti is extremely negative. The news portrays it as full of violence, destruction, corruption, and disease,” Belle says. “I’ve been living there for 20 years, and I’m not a glutton for punishment. I remain there because I see so much potential and creativity in Haiti, and that will be very much on display on the stage” Jan. 24.

And this year will bring more changes.

Construction will soon begin on a studio for audio and music production. Donations from Lionel Richie’s and Quincy Jones’ “We are the World Foundation” made the project possible. The school will also change its name to The Artists Institute of Haiti. Ciné Institute will remain as the film school within the institute.

Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer and the Haitian Roundtable, an organization of Haitian-American professionals committed to philanthropic endeavors on behalf of Haiti, recently presented an Honorary Haitian Award to Belle for his work.

For her part Steckel hopes the Jan. 24 fundraiser will be the first of many. In New York City, where there is a large and well-established Haitian community, Steckel says, “It’s important to celebrate the proud [Haitian] cultural tradition.”

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